By Richard Prince, Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education
WASHINGTON - Juan Williams lashed back at NPR Thursday and Friday over his Wednesday night firing, as the network's CEO acknowledged it bungled Williams' dismissal and black NPR employees tied Williams' departure to their diversity concerns. The story was proving to be bigger than anyone imagined.
Some American Muslims, meanwhile, wondered whether the episode would make matters worse for them.
" 'The greater American public remains unsure about Islam and very often hostile about Islam,' said Akbar Ahmed, chair of Islamic Studies at American University, who examines the divide in his new film and book, 'Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam,' " Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times reported Friday for the Tribune Washington bureau.
"Ahmed said he was disappointed by Williams' comments. But he added that NPR's abrupt firing 'does not bring the temperature down against Muslims…. Now the debate is, are we being oversensitive to Muslims?' "
NPR fired Williams from his news analyst job after he told Bill O'Reilly on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" that Muslims dressed in Muslim garb on planes made him nervous.
"Mr. Williams tempered his remarks, though, by reminding Mr. O’Reilly that all Muslims should not be branded as extremists," as Brian Stelter wrote in the New York Times. " 'We don’t want, in America, people to have their rights violated, to be attacked because they hear rhetoric from Bill O’Reilly and they act crazy,' Mr. Williams said, and Mr. O’Reilly agreed."
Williams, a senior news analyst on NPR but a commentator on Fox News Channel, was told by NPR late Wednesday via telephone that it was terminating his contract. "His remarks on The O'Reilly Factor this past Monday were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR," NPR said in a statement. The remarks also came in a week when NPR affiliates, which depend heavily on donations, were conducting a pledge drive.
In a FoxNews.com column and an appearance on O'Reilly on Thursday, and in an appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Friday, Williams struck back.
"Now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion," he wrote. "This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one-sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought."
On "Good Morning America," Williams said of NPR, "This current crew was really getting vicious. I’ve always thought the right wing were ones that were inflexible and intolerant And now I'm coming to realize that the orthodoxy at NPR, if it's representing the left, it's just unbelievable that, you know — and especially I think for me as a black man to somehow, you know, say something that's out of the box, they find it very difficult.
"And I think that's right, George. I think they were looking for a reason to get rid of me, that they were uncomfortable with the idea that I was talking to the likes of Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity."
It was an unusual public denunciation of his former employers in an industry where burning bridges carries a risk: A boss at one network today might easily become a supervisor at your news organization tomorrow.
Vivian Schiller, the NPR CEO, framed Williams' firing as the last straw in a series of incidents, not simply over the comments on O'Reilly. Asked about firing Williams in a late-night phone call, she conceded in a staff meeting on Friday, "Was it a smart idea? No."
Black journalists who watched events play out declared Williams the winner after he emerged with a $2 million, three-year contract with Fox News Channel. But many did not buy Williams' arguments, although they did agree that there were racial implications to the developments.
"OK, so he worked for an organization whose leadership he supposedly found 'self-righteous, ideological, left-wing' and that treated him worse than 'Tricky Dick' treated his enemies," freelance writer Marjorie Valbrun wrote for Slate.com. "Yet he stayed with them for 10 years. I wonder when exactly he began to notice he was the only black male on air at NPR and why he did not publicly complain about this lack of diversity before?
"Now that Williams is feeling victimized, maybe he can imagine how Muslims must feel about his comments."
Williams was NPR's sole on-air black male voice for most of his career at NPR. The National Association of Black Journalists questioned NPR's commitment to diversity a year ago after Greg Peppers, one of two black men in NPR's newsroom management, was fired less than 24 hours after the network hosted NABJ at its Washington headquarters.
Schiller responded that "we are examining our overall diversity status critically," released NPR's own set of figures about the staff makeup and in December hired Keith Woods, one of the foremost trainers and educators in journalism diversity and then the No. 2 administrator at the Poynter Institute, the school for professional journalists, for the new position of vice president of diversity in news and operations. In August, NPR hired another black journalist, Wall Street Journal reporter Corey Dade, as a Washington-based digital news correspondent.
At staff meetings on Thursday and Friday, African American employees questioned whether blacks were being singled out for dismissal and wondered whether a white employee would have been fired in the manner Williams was.
Spokeswoman Anna Christopher did not respond to a message asking whether NPR planned to replace Williams, who had become a contract worker.
In the Williams-connected conversations about NPR's diversity, little was said about the on-air homogeneity of Fox News, which attracts the fewest black viewers of the cable news networks.
Joe Strupp noted additionally for Media Matters for America, "Whether or not Juan Williams deserved to be fired from NPR, it's clear that Fox News regularly airs far worse anti-Muslim commentary."
Williams maintained on "Good Morning America" that one reason he was so angry about his dismissal was that his remarks were taken out of context. After all, he said, he had a track record as a historian on civil rights issues.
Even so, Williams' statement that he felt nervous around Muslims dressed in "Muslim garb" on planes became a lightning rod, despite his additional comment that Muslims should not be stereotyped.
"I’ve been a Muslim for 32 years. I’ve been all over the world, especially the Middle East," Sunni Khalid, senior reporter at WYPR-FM in Baltimore, told Journal-isms.
"What the hell is 'Muslim garb?' I bet Juan and Bill O’Reilly couldn’t distinguish Sikh or Hindu traditional garb from Saudi or Kuwaiti clothing. What about people from Indonesia, who wear the black, oval-shaped songbok on their heads? I wear it when I travel. Should people from those countries, where the bulk of extremist attacks occur, be 'nervous,' too? What about Obama, when he hosts Karzai or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia? I remember there was a time, not too long ago, when white women crossed the street when I was walking IN A SUIT! And, of course, it’s still tough to catch a cab in DC if you’re a black man," said Khalid, a former NPR foreign correspondent who settled a discrimination lawsuit against the network in 2003.
"Again, it should be pointed out that the 9-11 skyjackers were not dressed in so-called 'Muslim garb,' but Western clothes, in order to fit in. In fact, I’d be more comfortable to see someone dressed in traditional garb, because I could be assured that they had already passed through the same security measures that I had."
However, Asra Nomani, a scholar in the practice of journalism at Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies, said Friday on NPR's "Tell Me More," "What Juan Williams expressed, I believe, is the sentiment of many people and including Muslims. Muslims profile each other all the time. When you walk into a mosque and you see other Muslims, you say, oh, look, he looks like a Jihadi. Or, that's a niqab, a woman who wears a full-face veil. It doesn't mean, you know, that we need to go to the point of civil liberties, you know, offensive or anything like that. . . . I believe, unfortunately, that NPR short-circuited a conversation that we really need to be having."
NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard reported that "NPR’s initial story garnered more than 6,800 comments, many supporting Williams and others asking why it took so long to fire him. At noon, the deluge of email crashed NPR’s 'Contact Us' form on the web site."
According to one national survey of 1,017 Americans Thursday evening, 46 percent of those polled said NPR was wrong to fire Williams, 19 percent said NPR was right to fire him and 35 percent said they had no opinion on the issue, according to Ted Iliff of the organization Poll Position.
The controversy went far beyond the journalism realm when former governors Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who also are paid Fox News contributors, jumped to Williams' defense and called for a "defunding" of NPR by the federal government.
But as Andrew Phelps of public station WBUR in Boston noted, "NPR receives no direct funding from the federal government for operations," although individual stations benefit from grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
"NPR does receive grants from CPB for special projects, but that funding is not included as part of the network’s operations budget," he wrote.
"So while federal dollars do flow to NPR, the connection is indirect. It may be a fine point, but it’s an important distinction. The federal government can’t 'defund' NPR. What Congress can do is cut CPB funding — which has diminished over the years and has, at times, been threatened."
The Williams affair at heart was a debate over the proper role of journalists, however.
"After dismissing Mr. Williams, who was one of its senior news analysts, NPR argued that he had violated the organization’s belief in impartiality, a core tenet of modern American journalism," Stelter wrote in the New York Times. "By renewing Mr. Williams’s contract, Fox News showed its preference for point-of-view — rather than the view-from-nowhere — polemics.
"Kelly McBride, the ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, called the Williams case an 'object lesson in how different news organizations have different values.' She said the ethics guidelines at many news organizations matched those at NPR.
" 'If you make some outlandish statement on your Facebook page or at a public event somewhere, you are still representing your newsroom,' she said. 'So there are consequences to that.' "
This columnist was pleased to have participated Friday in a smart, hour-long discussion of the case with Mark Jurkowitz of the Pew Research Center, host Kerri Miller and listeners of Minnesota Public Radio, among other conversations.